The human response pathway

When something happens in the outside world, we react in different ways depending on our personal centering. Suppose three people are sitting in a cafe when there is a car crash outside. The intellectually centred person might start analysing what happened and why. The emotionally centred one might feel fear and concern for the possibly injured passengers. The moving centred person might jump up to take a closer look. It’s actually more complicated in that all the centres have three parts, which also represent intellectual, emotional and moving perspectives. For example, in moving part of intellectual centre, an observer might think about the situation first (should I dial 999? go to help? run away before the building collapses? etc) before acting. In emotional part of moving centre, a feeling of shock or fear might quickly translate into a scream, tears, wringing of hands, or other agitated behaviour. (See this link for a more in depth discusson of centering).

In reaction mode, nearly all of us tend to miss out or hop over at least one of the three main centres, resulting in outcomes which cannot satisfy all of our needs even if we meet the needs associated with our habitual centering. One of the benefits of applying the basic NbC/NVC process is that it forces us to slow down and work through both intellectual centre (Observation) and emotional centre (Feelings) before we identify the key Needs and then move to Action from the moving centre. On occasions, the much faster response times of emotional and moving centres might offer a more effective pathway; we might duck if someone swings a punch at us, for example, rather than wondering why he is angry or dwelling in our feelings of hurt and surprise.  But for most of us living in 21st century urban society, unavoidable violent confrontations are relatively rare. Generally speaking, our needs will be better met by a response pathway that includes both intellectual and emotional centres before action is taken.

However, in practice we do not tend to start from pure factual observations and proceed in a straight line to connect with feelings and needs (OFN), as in the NVC model. Instead, the brain has a filtering system which uses pre-programmed routines to decide whether to send energy to our legs, our heads or our hearts. This happens in a split second and is usually only obvious if we are intellectually centred, as this is the slowest of the centres. We may even say, “Hang on, I’m thinking about it”, if someone is impatient for a response. We rarely, if ever, say, “Hang on I’m feeling about it”, or “Hang on, I’m twitching about it”, because these reactions are perceived as instantaneous, if they are noticed at all. In intellectual centre, the processing of a response is slower and more amenable to dissection: with practice, we may even observe ourselves as we start to interpret the event and make judgements about it. Still, the same neurological pathways and filters must also operate in relation to the other centres, it is just that the processing is faster and more automated there. Anyway all habitual pathways and responses are defined by the same type of historical interpretations and assumptions, which tend very much to become fixed, not to say fossilised, unless they are constantly challenged and reassessed.

For example, a 16-stone football supporter backed by 5 of his mates makes to push me off the tube train. Observation – Feeling – Needs – Action (OFNA) goes like: When I see him square his shoulders and tense his arm muscles, I feel scared because I need safety, and I get off of my own volition before he makes contact. Back at home, my 3 yr old daughter makes to push me off the sofa. OFNA is : When I see her square her shoulders and tense her arm muscles, I feel happy because I enjoy playing rough-and-tumble games with her and I let her push me off. The NVC analysis appears to make sense in both cases, but it fails to account for the different feelings, needs and results in each situation. The missing stage which makes the key difference between these two situations, I suggest, is the unconscious thought process which comes in before the feeling. In the first example, I am thinking (unconsciously, most likely), “Shit, he’s big, he can hurt me, and there’s no way I am strong or brave enough to stand up to this bunch of morons, I’d better back off“. Remember, no actual physical hurt has occurred, so if I am scared, my fear must derive entirely from my intellectual analysis and conclusions about what ‘might happen’. In the second example I am thinking, “I love the way she practises her strength even though she’s so much smaller than me, I’m going to go with this so she will enjoy the sense of power she’ll get“.  I am relaxed because I know it won’t hurt me to fall from the sofa to the carpet and am ready to enjoy my daughter’s delighted reaction. So the actual stimulus for my emotions is not in either case the event in the outside world, it’s my thinking about it – even as in these examples when there is actual physical interaction involved. In most cases it’s even more obvious that emotions are arising all the time based purely on how we are thinking.

We are usually not aware of all this because of the way we perceive our world through the lens of our habitual centering. Just because we are moving centred (for example) does not mean nothing is happening in emotional centre or intellectual centre. We are just not present with the feelings or thoughts, which are going on regardless. NVC particularly draws attention to what is happening in emotional centre, and links that to the human needs. However, connecting to feelings and needs rarely succeeds in changing behavioural patterns (and thus meeting more needs more efficiently) if we ignore the thought processes which are still churning over in intellectual centre and which will continue to provoke the same emotions in us the next day and the day after. Being intellectually centred doesn’t help much either. Intellect can argue on either side of any case and easily gets confused by shoulds and shouldn’ts. If it’s disconnected from the feelings, it is as useless as a car with no driver, unable to know by itself which of the thoughts it’s churning out might be truly relevant in the context of the well-being of the whole organism. To take care of that, we need to have all our centres open and to be able to shift our perspective freely between them.

My opinion is that in 99% of situations we experience in daily life, there is no physical trigger to our emotional reactions, but only a mental one, sometimes conscious but mostly automated on the basis of past experience. If I have a black belt in aikido, I might stay relaxed when confronted by football hooligans on the tube, and if I crushed my wrist once when falling off a sofa I will probably be more nervous about engaging in horse-play with my daughter. The need for safety is real, and it is indeed ‘called up’ by the feeling of being scared, but if I don’t have a prior ‘reason’ to feel scared, then my need for safety will not actually be relevant to the matter in hand. The way we react to an event in the present is effectively determined by what we have internalised as thought-forms about related events in the past. The feelings are a symptom, not the cause.

The most powerful and pernicious internalised thought-forms are known as core beliefs.